In praise of the brick

A row of brightly coloured, plastic Lego minifigures, in a range of poses and mismatched costumes, carrying a wide variety of props.
In between bouts of abject misery, whilst I’ve been off work over the summer holidays I’ve been immersed in a nice little obsession that has gripped every single member of our four-person household.

My husband was always a huge Lego fan as a child, and was always eager, from her birth, for our girl to reach an age where she might, just might, develop an interest in it. And although she showed little interest in the larger Duplo blocks as a toddler, that interest did come as she approached three, and for the past couple of years, building increasingly off-the-wall creations with those little coloured plastic bricks, plates and “elements” has been one of dad and daughter’s chief ways of bonding.

It’s hard to get her to put down the hardback Lego Ideas books she stays awake at night poring over. It’s an outlet for her feverish, ever-active, ever-inspired imagination. And it’s a compulsive habit for all of us.

As a child, Lego was simply one of the many things I played with. My younger brother had space and police sets. I gravitated towards the classic, multicoloured stuff and mainly built houses. Or house layouts. Single-storey roofless semi-open plan buildings with every room, and every appliance accounted for. All fairly basic. I enjoyed the creativity inherent in trying to replicate the look and feel of everyday items using materials constrained in their shape or colour. But the primary outlet for my wilder imaginings as a child was drawing. 

Now, however, it’s a different story. We have masses of the stuff. My husband takes great enjoyment in building pre-designed sets straight from the box. Daughter initially watched him build, enthralled, but these days takes a far more active role. And later, when the purchased, assembled sets are dismantled (and I have to disregard the inner wince I experience as the strict inventory of bricks from one set is mingled in with the rest of our stash of plastic), my daughter starts inventing. She also loves collecting minifigures, but is always happy, once again, to dismantle their intended forms and create her own monster minifigure mashups.

Our toddler is captivated by it all. Of course, his involvement has mainly, until now, consisted of dismantling his sister’s creations (and yet never smashing. He’s always take them apart bit by bit, examining the pieces) or running off with much-needed elements. Now he’s sorting the bits into type, assessing and grouping sizes and shapes, building towers of bricks of one particular type or another, and showing a level of dexterity and manual strength I’m pretty amazed at for a not-quite-two-year-old.

(And yes, I know he’s not old enough for it. He should stick to his Duplo. But he doesn’t put the bits in his mouth. He plays with them. Properly. He puts them together logically, and takes them apart. We supervise him. And we’re all happy.)
Front view of a small two-storey model house constructed primarily of beige, grey and brown Lego bricks, with double doors, white framed windows and navy blue roof tiles. In the front doorway stands a blank faced minifigure wearing a tricorn hat. On a balcony on the right of the picture stands a simple two-eyed 'ghost' constructed of white bricks.
And although it’s always been my husband’s domain (as the stay-at-home parent, he’s always had more available time), over the holidays I’ve really got in on the act.

Lego is just so phenomenally pleasing. It’s tactile. Stimmy. And despite the fact I’m hugely, and often adversely, sensitive to noise, I find myself enjoying the sound of the bricks as they crash and rattle through my hands as I run them through the box, searching for the right element. It’s akin to white noise, I suppose.

The design of each individual element can be utterly exquisite. And the beauty of the sets you can buy suggests that those who designed them had a hell of a lot of fun in putting those ideas together. Some are beguiling in their apparent simplicity; others dazzlingly, deliciously complex. Others still, especially those builds on a micro scale, make my heart sing with the way the very essence of an animal, person or object is conveyed by such a limited combination of component parts. 

Of course, there’s so much more scope now than there was when I was a child. The range of available elements is astonishing. And sometimes this raises expectations too high. You have a seemingly ridiculous range of materials from which to build from, and yet not quite enough of certain items to build your envisaged design to absolute perfection. Perhaps tighter constraints are, sometimes, liberating. But variety can also be hugely fun, and hugely exciting.

The interior of a small two-story house made of Lego bricks. On the left is a brown staircase with a 'Mr Hyde' type figures standing in it. A small 'ghost' peers out of a first floor door, and a larger one stands on the ground floor, to the right of the picture. Dimly visible in the background is a minifigure wearing a tricorn hat.This week, I built a haunted house for my daughter, at her request. It was an addictive process. I’ve struggled to tear myself away from the build, and once again, I’ve found myself utterly immersed, compelled. Always keen to improve on the structure and appearance of the thing.

At night, I’ve seen bricks in my mind’s eye. And even while ‘Picture This’ was playing in my head as I took my “need for space” walk earlier this week, and I noticed leaf formations, the shapes of trees, the light of the moon in the sky, and my feelings about past walks and past personal experiences and depressive episodes, I still found myself looking at buildings anew. Evaluating and appraising their structures, and wondering how such a thing might be conveyed in studded plastic form.

Daughter added embellishments, decor and furniture to the house, and two out of the three simple brick-ghost inhabitants. The husband added a couple of spooky minifigures.

A two-storey house built of brown, grey and beige Lego bricks. A simple 'ghost' made of white bricks stands in an upstairs balcony.It’s the most complex thing I’ve ever built out of Lego. And I’m bloody pleased with it. But also dissatisfied because I’m aware there are better techniques for ensuring structural integrity, optimum ordering of building of each part, and so on. The pattern-spotting, detail-fixated autist in me sees room for improvement everywhere, and a keenness to learn, observe, and do more. The trouble is, I’ll be back at work soon. I’ll have less time.

But I don’t think I can let go of Lego. It’s got me, dammit.

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